It’s over! Iowa held its vaunted caucus for Republican presidential hopefuls, and Mitt Romney “won” by eight votes over Rick Santorum. In doing so, he was rejected by 75 percent of Iowans, who didn’t seem wild about any of the candidates. The real winner was the media, which blanketed the nation with Iowa coverage. Many see the Hawkeye State as a bellwether—the “real” America and thus a guide to the political future.
But is Iowa the “real” America? In truth, there are almost as many Americas as there are states, counties, cities, towns—and people—in this nation. Unless you believe that “American” denotes only one type of ethnic or religious group and one interpretation of American “values.” Which may be why Iowa’s winners rarely capture party nominations.
Yes, Iowa is real. And the exhausting campaign of bus tours and diner stops serves a purpose by winnowing candidates. Herman Cain was exposed in Iowa. Michele Bachmann, after getting five percent of Republican votes, dropped out. God, she stated afterwards, has other plans for her. This does not mean, I assume, anointing Mrs. Bachmann as spokesperson for American values—a position claimed equally by all the other candidates. It’s all about values, they tell us. But which Americans’ values do Iowa and they represent?
I remember driving through Iowa one morning six years ago with my son, Aaron. An hour west of Des Moines, we pulled off I-80 and into a small town for breakfast. We found a restaurant with white clapboard exterior, screen door, plain interior with a low ceiling and Formica tables. Candidates go to places like this to show that they’re real folks. As we waited for our scrambled eggs and toast, an older man greeted us with, “Howdy, fellas.” He may have been checking out strangers, but he seemed friendly. We greeted him with an equally pleasant “good morning.” After eating, we drove downtown, which could have been featured in any movie about “heartland” America then headed back to the Interstate.
I remarked to Aaron, “We may be the only Jews in this county.” I could have been wrong, but my point was clear. We were passing through a white, Christian, rural America that wasn’t our America. The residents likely held different viewpoints on many issues. Yet I believe that had we discussed issues with the town’s residents over coffee, we might have come to some measure of agreement freed from the hyperbole and ideology generated by political campaigns, which tend to prove divisive. And sure, there are differences in thinking we probably could not have bridged. Small-town Iowa and big-City San Francisco represent two of many Americas.
Romney, Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have moved on. They’re focused on New Hampshire—another “real” America. And they’re not stupid. Ignorant? Often. Stupid? No. They’ll tailor their messages according to what people in New Hampshire want to hear. Well, maybe not Ron Paul. He’s another story.
The interesting thing is that in New Hampshire—and in South Carolina to follow—Iowa may prove its ultimate worth. Republicans nationwide have been exposed to all the hype produced by and for the extended Iowa campaign. The candidates may have already forgotten Iowa, but other “real” Americans often demonstrate long memories.
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